In August of 2014 a few of my creative writing classmates and I took on a personal project, a compilation or anthology of our essays about living in New York. Since today was full of snow and rain, I thought posting an essay I’d written last May would be fitting.
The forecast predicted rain, and sure enough here it was. Most New Yorkers grumble about rainy weather, but not me. I’m from a tropical country. Monsoons? Totally our thing. New York rain is a light afternoon drizzle where I’m from.
That’s probably why I’ve learned to love it. I love how it washes the city streets clean. I love how it can quiet down—not by a lot—a really bustling city. I love playing a little Scott Weiland and bouncing around in my galoshes. This might sound crazy, but the first time I heard lightning and thunder cut through the usual sounds of the city, a comforting feeling washed over me. And all I could think of was bulalo.
Steaming hot broth, the kind that warms you to the soul. Soft starchy potatoes. Meaty, with an aroma that true beef eaters could never mistake. Just a hint of sweetness from the carrots, the string beans, and the cabbage. It’s one of the few dishes with a list of ingredients easily completed at the corner supermarket.
Making bulalo, good bulalo, is a one to two day process. One, if you have the whole day. Two if you can only cook at night. One, if you don’t mind cloudy broth. Two, if you would like very clean broth. I’m lucky, today is a Saturday, which means I have pretty much the whole day.
Start by taking beef bones, the stewing kind, and washing them well. Next, put them in a pot and cover them with water. Then we begin boiling. If I were one of my aunts, all the broth from this initial boil would be thrown away. That’s because she likes very clean broth. I, however, have learned to do a few things a little bit differently. So after about two to three hours of boiling, I fish out the bones and transfer them to another pot. Then I let the broth sit while I cut a large onion into four and crush about three cloves of garlic. Those get thrown into the new pot. Then come the beef shanks. I usually cook for four, so four large shanks go in before I cover it with two cheesecloths, and with that to catch any impurities and bubbles (as my aunt calls it) I pour in the broth. If there isn’t enough broth to cover what’s now in Pot #2, then I just top it off with water. Add two teaspoons of salt, a handful of peppercorns, cover it up and go watch TV. That’s going to need to boil for another hour and a half.
If you’re not a big fan of TV, you can spend the time peeling and quartering two large potatoes, peeling and cutting carrots into bite-sized pieces, washing and cutting the ends of string beans, and quartering a whole cabbage. You’ll still have about forty-five minutes to spare though. So you can move on to squeezing the juice of one lemon into a small bowl and adding an equal amount of soy sauce. You can also cut a red Thai chili into it, but that’s completely optional.
Once your shanks and bones and onions and garlic have been at a rolling boil for about an hour and a half, put in your potatoes. These are going to take the longest to cook so they need to go in about five to seven minutes before anything else, and also because it’s nice to have firm carrots and somewhat crispy cabbage. Mushy carrots and cabbage? No good.
After the first seven minutes have passed, throw in the rest of the vegetables. As soon as the carrots can be pierced through with a toothpick (usually less than ten minutes), kill the flame.
Now you’re ready to eat! I like serving the meat and vegetables on a plate and serving the broth in a separate bowl. The soy sauce and lemon mixture can be drizzled on top of the meat using a spoon or used as a dipping sauce.
Bulalo is one of my ultimate comfort foods not just because it’s something from home and something that warms you up on a cold rainy night, but also because it is something that leaves you feeling nourished, which is an entirely different feeling from feeling full. Easy to make and delicious, it’s like an edible blanket. You feel good snuggling into it. And I really don’t mind that it takes time to prepare.
The entire process is a heart-warming reminder of family dinners, out of town trips with friends, and amazing hole-in-the-wall restaurants. It’s something I’m never “not in the mood” to eat. After all, it’s a spoonful of home in every bite.
Featured image is of Washington Square Park. Taken two days ago.